‘Don Jon’ and the Damage Porn Does

The influence, prevalence and acceptance of pornography in our culture has been spreading for decades now. And for much of that time, Christians have been at the forefront of describing and decrying porn’s pernicious effects upon those who use it. (More recently, we as the church have also begun to tell the hard truth about how much pornography is also an issue for many who seek to follow Jesus.) You don’t have to tell most believers that pornography takes God’s beautiful gift of sexuality and removes it from its rightful context, marriage, then distorts and debases it in the name of self-centered gratification and indulgence.

In our mainstream secular culture, however, pornography hasn’t always been viewed as a damaging social evil. Many voices dismiss it as harmless. Or a rite of passage for adolescent boys. Others say it can even be an aid to a couple’s sex life by helping them spice things up, so to speak. Still others have framed the pornography debate in terms of rights and free speech. Actress Amanda Seyfried, for instance, who recently played the part of influential porn actress Linda Lovelace in the film Lovelace, said of the United Kingdom’s attempt to limit pornography’s access to minors, “You can’t put a ban on it. I mean, kids under age are still drinking. It just makes it that much more powerful. It’s freedom. You should be free to watch it whenever you want.”

Interestingly, however, some folks in the mainstream culture are also beginning to question whether pornography is really so benign and whether it’s alleged “benefits” are real … or perhaps the gateway to relationship-destroying addiction. For example, the new film Don Jon, starring, written and directed by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, portrays a young lothario coming to the realization that his deeply entrenched pornography addiction may be crippling his ability to find genuine intimacy in the real world with a real woman.

In a recent interview with Fox News regarding his film, Gordon-Levitt said of his motivation for making it,

“I wanted to tell a story about how people sometimes treat each other more like things, than like people, and how the media can sometimes play a part in that. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to the reactions people have to movies and TV and things like that because I’ve been an actor since I was a kid and especially recently I’ve heard a lot people say ‘Why can’t my life be like that movie you were in?’ or ‘Why can’t I find somebody like you in that movie?’ and I find that a little startling because real life isn’t like it is in the movies. Real life is actually a lot more beautiful and rich with detail and nuance, but you’ll miss it if you’re constantly comparing your real life to fantasies. So that’s why I thought a story about a young man who watches too much pornography going out with a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be sort of a funny way to ask these questions.”

In her article for Verily magazine focusing on Don Jon’s critical take on pornography, Mary Rose Somarriba writes, “For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general? … Don Jon’s portrait of a porn user suggests at the very least that we might not be aware of its overall effects.”

It’s significant, I think, that people like Gordon-Levitt and others in our culture’s mainstream are waking up to the reality that pornography isn’t just a benign indulgence. Don Jon is generating lots of critical buzz, and it’s got people talking, perhaps in some new ways, about the significance of this important subject.

That said, I also can’t help but wonder if actually depicting these problematic images so graphically in a movie is still dangerously problematic for those who are wrestling with this issue. Don Jon is ultimately a cautionary tale, but it also gives viewers an eyeful — and a mind-full — of the very images it’s ostensibly seeking to critique. In his review of the film for Plugged In, Paul Asay focused on exactly that point. “Don Jon’s addiction is graphically realized onscreen. Countless porn clips are shown — edited just enough to keep the movie on the R side of an NC-17 rating.”

And in his conclusion, Asay adds, “And there’s still one more thing that plays out like a sinful lie in Don Jon: In exposing the lie of porn, it splashes tons of the substance of that lie up onscreen. Even as its characters tell us that it’s empty, the images that flicker around their words continue to seduce and sing their siren song, leaving, for some, the already weakened moral beached and bereft of meaning.”

I think that’s a good word for Christians who might be curious about how Don Jon deals with the important issue of pornography. Gordon-Levitt has, it seems, crafted a story that reveals just how degrading pornography can be — even as it reveals quite a lot of the very subject its critiquing along the way.